Nightmare before Christmas”
reason, as Advent begins this year, I find myself thinking about Jack the
Pumpkin King—the lead character in that strange film, The Nightmare before Christmas. In recent years Jack and the other
characters have become staples for Christmas as well as for October.
haven’t seen the movie, well, Jack does a great job of presiding over
Halloween, making it scarier each year. So when he discovers Christmas, Jack is
confident that he can do a better job with it than Santa Claus and his ilk.
however, nothing seems to go right. A child pulls a shrunken head out of a
gift-wrapped box, a brother and sister are chased by their scary presents, and
a snake starts to swallow one family's tree.
It is a
nightmare. Nothing seems go right. Nothing seems to be right.
got to feel a little sorry for Jack the Pumpkin King, mostly because he reminds
us of many people that we know, maybe even ourselves: trying for a merry
Christmas but with less than perfect results.
this season that begins four Sundays before Christmas, is intended to give each
of us some much-needed time to prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming
Christ. As we start our Christmas preparations this year, however, there is
that vague sense that things are not right.
A.O. Scott put it as well as anyone, when he wrote in the New York Times a couple of days ago: “For the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve
been preoccupied…by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is
healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality,
[and] the collapse of the middle class…
Closer to home, I’m…worried about my neighbors, anxious about my
children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my
many, December only highlights the misery.
Our world and our lives are trouble places,
nightmarish at times. In such a world, we want to join with the prophet Isaiah
in crying out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
The temptation is to give in to the
present—to accept that what is is all
that can be, all that will be.
These days invite us once more to keep
awake, to stay alert in the faith that God’s promises are good, that, as Isaiah
put it: “God works for those who wait for God.”
Some time ago I found myself, as I often do, in a hospital waiting room,
sitting with members of a family while someone was in the operating room. In
this case, it was a child having heart surgery. At one point his father turned
to me and said: “You must do a lot of waiting.”
It was a unique way to describe my work, but I smiled with recognition.
Another person had seen that much of my job is—how can I put this?—hanging
around, being present, watching: biding my time with others while we move
through major events of living and dying. I wait and watch in the hope that God
is to be found just at such times.
I want to call this “holy waiting,” not to make it sound more important
than the waiting other people do or to suggest it's only done by “clergy types.”
It is holy because it is a waiting that is set apart and filled with power.
Holy waiting—which all of us do—is active and immersed in the reality of this
Some waiting does change us. Think of waiting for test results to come
back, waiting for a child to be born, waiting for healing, waiting to receive
news of a loved one far away. As we wait, we learn again just how much we need
In actively waiting, we are involved fully in this present world with the
conviction that God is at work where we are. We do not flinch from the
unpleasant realities of the present, but neither do we take them as the final
waiting and watching the psalmist invites us to be honest before God about our
world, our lives, our dreams and our nightmares.
ear, O Shepherd of Israel. . . stir up your might, and come to save us!” If
Advent is the time of preparation for the coming of the incarnate Shepherd, we
can start by confessing with the psalmist our own longing for deliverance. Some
are reluctant to speak like this before God, fearing that such a lament
indicates a lack of faith. But Advent is a time to name, to mourn, to rage
against the seeming absences of God.
people of Israel were not reluctant to speak honestly with God. Maybe it's because
they weren’t trying to convince themselves and everyone else that they were
good, faithful people.
learn from them?
remembered times of favor, times of prosperity. They would not forget their
story, the story of God's sheltering care. In part of Psalm 80 that we didn’t
read this morning, the people sang:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the
The mountains were covered with its
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
was that vine, and God was the gardener that gave it growth.
life is different. The walls around the vineyard are broken down. Wild
boars—gentiles—uproot the garden. It is a nightmare.
seems distant at such times, the psalmist does not sit waiting in silence. The
question comes quickly to the lips: “O Lord God of Hosts, how long will you be
angry with your people's prayers?”
To lament over the broken walls of the
vineyard of Israel, to cry “God, we have had enough violence in this world!” to
ask “If everybody else seems so happy, why don’t I?” is the first part of our
Advent preparation. We need not wait passively. We need not watch stoically. To
celebrate the coming of the light of Christ, we must first cry out from the
black holes of our own existence.
of her poems Maya Angelou has a line about people “arriving on a
nightmare/praying for a dream.” Maybe those words say something about our own
weary journeys toward Bethlehem. The nightmare of fear and war and broken lives
leads to the longing dream.
person puts it like this: “We dream that the glimpses of the fullness of love
that we sense occasionally in our lives show us what we were created to become.
When a young father takes his newborn daughter into his arms for the first
time; when a mother eases the midnight fears of her frightened son; when an
estranged couple grope their way painfully back into love again; when a family
makes a pilgrimage to the beside of a dying loved one and finds itself bathed
in the mystery of love; when a single woman comes to see her solitary dwelling
not as a place of emptiness, but as a nest sheltered under the wing of God;
when a community provides an environment for healing; when friends call us to
remember our most authentic selves; when a strange and fearful person becomes
for us the face of God; it is then that we begin to sense what we are intended
to be: God's children, the children of the promise.”[i]
When we dream such dreams, we enter into the
lament of the present; we recognize that the walls have fallen and pray with
Israel: “Restore us, O God, let your face shine that we may be saved.”
We keep awake. The light that the coming God
brings is the possibility that we might become the whole people we are meant to
be, that the world might become the place God created it to be.
Wendy Wright, The
Vigil, 1992, pg. 23.